Traveling Internationally with a 2-Year-Old

I wish I could tell you that this post is all about how invaluable it is to travel internationally with a toddler or that I have tips for traveling with a toddler, but countless posts like that already exist. (Thank goodness for the latter because I most definitely used this one and this one to prepare for our trip. Here is another good one by Elisa. By the way, we only took these carry-on backpacks for our baggage so we could have hands free for pushing around a stroller/car seat or chasing our toddler.)

My family not-so recently returned from a trip to Sicily. What was supposed to be a fabulous 2-week long family vacation was anything but. (The main reason it was a bust is a doozy of a story, and I will save that can of worms for another post.)

The trip was never about me since the whole purpose was to take my mother-in-law to visit the homeland. She had never been out of the United States before this trip, and early last year she discovered the names of the Sicilian towns in which her paternal grandparents were born. When she expressed her desire to see Sicily before leaving this life, we knew we were the only ones who could make that possible for her, and now was as good a time as any. We were already planning on selling our house, so when it sold last fall, we were able to accomplish many of our goals: pay off our combined student loan debt, finance my Montessori training, and take this trip. We spent months planning. We decided to go during spring break since the fares and other costs are lower in the off-season. That meant we'd have to bring Hunter with us since my momma would not be available to look after him (she works tax season).

I will be the first to admit that it was selfish to take Hunter on this trip. Part of me couldn't imagine being away from him for 2 weeks. The other part of me was itching to visit Italy again, and it had been 5 years since we were last in Europe. I was basically desperate to go on this trip, desperate for a major change of scenery. I wanted to make this trip happen so badly, I maybe ignored warning signs that it was not the best idea, and definitely not in Hunter's best interest.

I can't say that every moment of the trip was terrible, I mean, c'mon. Look at that boy's face playing among the ancient Greek ruins of Selinunte. Even today he talks about "Italy" (but he also talks about how Nonni went in the ambulance... geez!). He sees photos of ancient ruins and pronounces, "Look! Temples!" He played trucks with a sweet Sicilian preschooler at our airbnb accommodations outside of Palermo, and cried when we said it was time to go grab dinner. Every single Sicilian person who walked by Hunter gave him a little pat on the head (or full-on ran their fingers though his hair). He looked for Easter eggs in the field near our villa rental outside of Ragusa. Even though we live 10 minutes from the beach here in San Diego, it was in Sicily that Hunter started saying, "I see ocean!" He made friends with Jonah and his little brother (from Frankfurt) at an agriturismo outside of Agrigento, trading toy cars and playing tag on the patio after breakfast. He collected seashells on the walk to the Scala dei Turchi... we shared many special moments. But, there are lots of buts.

Even though almost all of our accommodations were of the self-catering type (meaning we cooked and ate most meals at the rental, especially breakfast and dinner), and even though Hunter is a champ at eating out at restaurants here in San Diego, this boy would not sit at the table when we went out to eat. Isaiah spent nearly every lunch we ate out entertaining Hunter outside. Also, we tried to see touristy sites, like Selinunte and the Valle dei Templi, that were outdoors so he could run around, but we also wanted my MIL to see some of the other spectacular places and cities that Sicily has to offer, which were not always so fun for a toddler. One site in particular was the Villa Romana di Casale. I was in awe of the mosaics when I saw the villa years before on our road trip through Italy, but this time I should have skipped a ticket for me and played in the parking lot with Hunter because he was not having it. Even though we all adjusted very quickly to the time difference, a big problem was that he was always up so early, and the rest of us were kind of leisurely about getting up, so by the time we were out the door and out and about, his naptime creeped up on us really quickly. Let's not even discuss what an 8-hour flight looks like with a child who has no interest in the iPad and who'd rather be riding his balance bike.

The biggest problem, however, was our lack of consideration for Hunter's developmental needs. We've all heard that the first five years of life are the most important. It wasn't until my Montessori training, however, that I recognized the magnitude of that statement. The task that these young children have is huge. They are building themselves into the men and women they will become. They are establishing an "inner compass" and laying the foundation for the rest of their lives. Education truly begins at birth, and the child's first teachers are his parents. Among the child's great tasks during these five years are adaptation to society during a particular era and in a particular place, language acquisition, and building intelligence. Therefore, to accomplish these great tasks, parents need to recognize what children need during those first five years: stability, order, a predictable environment, and opportunities for independence (among other things, of course).

I learned that from birth to around age 6, children can't be taught about the world around them; they absorb the world around them, and it becomes a part of them. Interestingly enough, this article uses a similar point to argue in favor of traveling with young children, saying that "the right kind of experiences in their early years can help children's brains grow!" The author assumes that what young children experience when traveling abroad is the "right kind of experience." Not only is it up for debate what defines those "right experiences," but the author also doesn't take into account the fact that disorder, such as that which arises when in an unfamiliar environment, can actually inhibit a child's mental growth. Since the "sameness" of everyday life provides the child a sense of peace and security, her energies are not occupied with making sense of her environment but rather they are free to focus on her development. Most family homes, whether or not they are set up the "Montessori way," have in place an order that the child grows to recognize and internalize. This order even brings the child pleasure and happiness. A trip to an unfamiliar place, however, will throw off her internal compass, so to speak. She will focus most of her energies on orienting and defending herself instead of on the amazing cultural sights and sounds that surround her. I am not implying that a 2-week trip to Sicily totally messed up Hunter's development, but I do believe it caused a blip, one that made him behave in ways that we rarely see when he is home surrounded by the familiar. In that sense, I feel it was unfair of us to take him on this trip, not necessarily detrimental, but definitely insensitive to his needs.

The kind of travel (slow travel or living abroad temporarily) that this author advocates, however, actually makes it possible to establish some order in the child's life. If you live more like locals with a home base, then the child will start to notice patterns and the parents will likely set up routines that help give the child's life some stability. You see, the author and her family lived in Costa Rica for a year with four children under the age of five, so her argument may very well be valid in such a case, but for other families who get to take one big 2-week vacation every now and again, it just doesn't hold up. Unfortunately, extended vacations or work stints abroad are travel experiences that very few families get to have.

Don't get me wrong. I definitely want to be a family that travels, and ideally, I'd love to live abroad again, this time with our children. While Isaiah and I will never again visit Pamplona for 24 hours with no hotel reservation and sleep on the grass while Fiesta San Fermin revelers continue to party all around us, and despite our most recent experience in Sicily, I sincerely believe that travel with children is worthwhile. Unlike the woman who wrote this other article, however, I think it's wise to wait until your children are older. Of course I want my children to be global citizens, I just don't think that in order to achieve that it's necessary to start international travel before the age of 6. The author of that article is yet another person advocating "slow travel," yet she's basically claiming that anyone who wants to give their child the gift of the world has to start traveling when the child is very young. Yes, families that live abroad or live in countries that border lots of other countries get to experience international travel with little fuss, so the children in those families most likely don't get their internal compass too out of whack. Yes, they get a head start on becoming global citizens, and travel really becomes part of their identity. When that baby builds himself as a man of his time and place, his place truly is the world. On the other hand, families who have a more or less "normal" life at home (e.g. many North American families) but every now and again go on a big trip somewhere, the children under 6 in those families get yanked away from the environment that they are learning to adapt to and plopped in a completely different place. As soon as they start to adapt to that new place, they return back home. It can be quite startling and confusing. Everyone says that children adapt very easily, and they do, but the situations we adults put them in are not always good for their development.

Despite my beef with the author's first point in the Huff-Post article, I liked her fifth point a lot because it makes the most practical sense to me. Traveling through food experiences or taking local weekend trips are doable for most families AND you can do this with younger children. I also get point #7 because if travel is worth it to you, then you will cut back on other things in your life to save up the money for it, when the kids are older, of course ;) So, really, the article isn't that bad; it's really just with her first point that I can't jump on board: traveling with young children. What I agree with: if I you start traveling when your child is a baby and do it frequently, he or she will get used to it. Sure, of course she will, but it's not always in the child's best interest to do that. For this author and others, it seems traveling with young children is just part of their plan for what they think is best for their children (global citizenship) and a way to condition them to become good travel companions later (or "great little travelers" like point #3 in this article). What else I disagree with: The offhanded comment implying teenagers are not good travel companions if they've never been anywhere. My sister and I didn't start traveling internationally until we were teenagers and we were awesome companions ;)

I have read a lot about how little ones who've traveled all over the world since they were babies already have a global perspective and have grown to love traveling and learning about new places, all before they can tie their own shoes. I think it's wonderful! But what if their parents had waited just a couple more years until they could tie their own shoes? Don't you think a 6-year-old, or even a 10-year-old, could appreciate (and benefit from) swimming in the Blue Lagoon in Iceland just as much as a 4-year-old, if not more? I definitely didn't need to have international travel experiences as a toddler to be bitten by the travel bug. Heck, I didn't leave the U.S. (Tijuana, Mexico doesn't count) until I was 15 years old when I visited our family's exchange student in Brazil, then visited Israel the following summer, and was already dreaming of studying abroad in Florence the year after that when I enrolled at NYU. Those first international travel experiences morphed into full-on wanderlust and a deep appreciation for different ways of life around the world. Go figure!

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